Over the holidays, I came across the course notes for a course I attended in February 2012. It was called ‘Introduction to probate’ and was run under the auspices of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW).
Page 1 of the course notes, and, as I recall, about the first 20 minutes of the speaker’s talk, referred to the “many opportunities arising from these additional services”.
The notes go on to say that the range of services that can be offered within the probate process is wide, that “there is plenty of work available in this area” and that “huge opportunities exist for earning good fee income”.
That the opening up of probate to members of the ICAEW  is regarded as a potential bonanza for the accountancy profession is not in doubt: it was confirmed to me in conversation with a senior ICAEW official very recently and I have been told by a partner in a mid-tier accounting firm that they have already created the necessary processes and work flows and they believe they can do non-contested probate for 30% less than the local legal profession… and still make very acceptable profits.
Make no mistake, the accountancy profession will be pitching for this work – and pitching hard. Worse still for many ‘full service’ law firms, especially smaller practices, the tax, trust and probate department is often one of their most profitable departments.
Faced with this sort of attack, what should the solicitor do? Here are some actions you can take right now to combat this threat.
Keep what you have and use it to grow
Law firms generally put far too little effort into making sure that they get close to clients and stay there. You have a lot of knowledge about your clients, and that knowledge presents an opportunity to build and maintain a close relationship with them.
Do it. It is much easier – and cheaper – to keep what you have than to find new clients. If you haven’t already invested in a client relationship management systems and communication tools, do it now.
When you have a strong relationship, don’t be afraid to ask clients for referrals. You’ll be surprised how willing they will be to recommend you, if you ask them to.
One step law firms can take which will help them build closer relationships with clients is to make sure the client is kept very well informed about their work and the legal issues that may affect them and that the relationship is not discarded when the matter is closed.
This simple and highly cost-effective step does more for a firm’s reputation with private clients than any amount of advertising, industry accolades, Lexel or CQS accreditation. An even better approach will be to redesign the services you supply to be provided more proactively, so that problems are anticipated and avoided, rather then reactively as is common now.
This, however, represents a fairly substantial re-engineering of the approach to practice for most firms, so can’t be done overnight. However, expect such an approach should produce considerable spin-off in new business in other areas also.
The accountant I mentioned above had spent the time to break down the process so the routine work could be delegated down easily and the process made as slick as possible. If you haven’t done a review of your processes recently with a view to minimising the cost of the process and at each step, do it now.
Remember your unique selling points
You are a solicitor. You know what to do when things go wrong. You are used to settling squabbles and, if necessary, have the court craft needed to get a result – and you have legal professional privilege, so your advice is safe from prying eyes.
These are all very good reasons to prefer to use a solicitor rather than an accountant. However, if you don’t start getting the message across to your clients and prospective clients, no-one else will do it for you. If you have specific expertise or industry knowledge and experience, trumpet it in the right areas.
If you haven’t already done a marketing plan for your probate department, do one. The basic market research should be very easy indeed for anyone with a marketing background. When you have worked out where your prospects are, get at them. This, and staying close to your existing clients, are simply good practice for any business, so sharpen up your marketing act.
For some firms, it will make sense to get together with other local firms to cross-refer systematically, each taking advantage of the other’s special skill sets to benefit their clients.
The ICAEW worked long and hard to be granted its new powers and its members’ growth targets will mean taking a slice of the ‘solicitor pie’. If you do the right things and soon, there’s no reason why it should be your slice that is taken.